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Tanweer Ali

A Self-Portrait


Photo of Tanweer
Petra and Tanweer on holiday in Croatia in the summer of 2003

The Oxford Muse website introduces self-portraits by saying “We enable people to create written self-portraits which express what they want others to know about them.” And so this is my point of departure - “I am not what I appear to be.” So who am I?

When I say that I am not what I appear to be, I must add that I am not what I appear to be to myself as well as to other people. In recent years I have started to challenge some illusions which I have had about myself as well as to reflect on illusions which other people have had about me. This process has been caused purely by various conversations which I have had with others. These are not the typical job interview conversations where the focus is solely on the CV and the very basic, skeletal (and often misleading) information. I have sometimes longed in job interviews (from both sides of the table) to say more about myself, and to learn more about the other person. In fact I did once have an interview which lasted a long time and was very fulfilling in this way. To me a real conversation is one in which there is no expectation of any concrete outcome on either side. Nobody has an agenda in terms of negotiating a result, finding out particular facts, winning arguments. Just talking and learning about the other person, and oneself.

People have at times formed misconceptions about me, based on what they know about me. I don’t want to say that I feel frightfully misunderstood, or that this doesn’t happen just as much to other people. Nor should I say that this is a cause of pain, since at times it has been a source of amusement. In a way I feel that the handling of these misconceptions, those of others as well as myself, has been an important facet of life’s journey for me.

To begin with perhaps I should answer the question: Where are you from? This question is put to me often, which is not something I mind – in fact it shows a certain curiosity and interest which I welcome. But it is a question that is not straightforward to answer. My parents came from the Indian sub-continent, and I have relatives in two countries that have at times been to war. I was born in southern Africa, though we were there for a very short time, and I don’t remember the first two years of my life, except perhaps for a couple of snapshot memories. I grew up in Britain and feel British – and my first language is English, this is the language we speak at home and the only language we could speak to understand each other. I now live in Prague, which has been my home for much of the last 13 years. I decided to come here, after a chance conversation in Oxford, about someone who had moved to Prague just after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I graduated in 1990 and had long wanted to spend a year abroad, and so I came to Prague, and my plans to return to the UK got delayed at some point.  But this all doesn’t really help answer the question, so where are you from? The answer depends on who is asking. If I am asked here in Prague I can say “England”. At conferences abroad, I have to say “the Czech Republic”. Just over two years ago at a seminar in Budapest I was one of two people from the Czech Republic, and we sort of stuck together, and during those days I think we came to be seen as the Czech delegation.  But there was really something else at play altogether, and we have been together ever since. Now Petra works for the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is from time to time part of real Czech delegations. Once I was at a conference in Prague and I ended up talking to a Shiite cleric. His smile also seemed to be saying “I’m not what I appear to be – don’t look at the robes and the beard and television images, look at me!” He asked where I was from and I replied that I was from England but living in Prague. He chuckled, saying “So am I! I’m from London”. And indeed he was, though he was born in Iran.

The more I think about the question “Where am I from?” the more I feel it is not enough to say just one place. In a way I feel an attachment to any place that leaves a strong impression on me. One year after I left school I went to visit a friend in northern Italy, and I stayed in their cottage in the hills outside Turin. I fell in love with the place immediately. And I have been back since, both to see Denis and also elsewhere in Italy. I feel as if I have left a bit of myself there, many happy memories. This is how one becomes part of a place. I am not Italian, but I can say that a part of me is from Italy. My favourite cities all-time are Verona and Siena. I love the sights, the art, the sight of the sun setting over the Duomo in Siena, the countryside, the sounds, the melodious tones of the language and above all an approach to life which I doubt that I could myself embrace thoroughly. Also Prague, which has been my home for so long now, and which I have come to regard as ‘my Prague’. I seem to feel at home in a broad area of Europe, which to me is ‘Central Europe’. There are many different definitions of what exactly constitutes ‘Central Europe’ but the one which I like the best is ‘the area where they drink certain types of bitter digestif’ and I feel as at home walking around in the streets of Turin, Milan or Vienna as I do in Prague. Vienna is also perhaps ‘my Vienna’ as I have spent many happy hours there with wonderful people and have left happy memories behind me. Perhaps I should expand my definition of Central Europe, or at least acknowledge that I am happy in many other types of place. My latest romance is with Paris, which I visited after a long interval earlier this summer; to me being in Paris is not about looking at historic buildings (although I do like doing that too) but sitting in a café on the pavement of a busy street, watching the world go by and pretending to be a Parisian for a while. And there is also a lingering flirtation with New York…

So perhaps part of my identity is defined more as a traveler, than as someone who comes from a certain place. Petra is very different in this way – she comes from a small town in Moravia, was born and grew up in the same house and her parents still live there. So she has a very clear sense of place and belonging, so we complement each other in this way.

I have to ask myself “What is the point of traveling?” Travel has expanded so much in recent decades and the cliché that travel broadens the mind is something I doubt. So much business travel is about getting onto an aircraft, disembarking, getting into a taxi, having a meeting and then heading straight for the airport again. I have had this experience too. Is this really traveling? And what about people who go on guided tours, who just rush around from city to city trying to cross off as many monuments from their list? As if they were doing a more culturally elitist form of train-spotting? I call this the McDonalds of traveling. The city-to-city tour, taking a superficial look at buildings in many different places, is to travel what McDonald’s hamburgers are to eating. For me travel is romance, it’s going to a new place, roaming around with a map, and getting a feel for the ambience, eating the food, and talking to people, adapting one’s life in ways after new experiences. I mean new ideas, new tastes, new habits and new friends. My visits to Italy have given me a passionate love for Italian cuisine – and I acquired this taste not in fancy restaurants but in people’s dining rooms. My favourite meals are simple but exquisite, and I enjoy cooking myself.

My other great passions are wine and music. My taste for wine has simplified over the years – I no longer look out for labels and places, but wine that I enjoy. My favourite wines are home-made; the father-in-law of my friend in Italy is an excellent wine maker. As important as the wine itself is the company – a simple meal of fresh bread, cheese and wine, in the company of good friends is my ideal of a perfect evening.  I learnt to love classical music from my father.  His favourites are Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius and of course, Mozart. I have come to admire the work of Gustav Mahler, and have managed to discover some not-so-well-known Czech composers such as Jan Dismas Zelenka. A ballet dancer friend performed in some of his operas – this acquaintance helped awaken my interest.

Some of my best memories from traveling are of conversations. I have often traveled alone, and this has helped me to meet people and make new friends along the way, some of whom I have kept in touch with. This is perhaps one way in which I deal with loneliness. In the future I would like to travel to more places, spend more time in France, and also start to explore the Middle East more. I lived in North Africa for a part of my childhood, in Libya. And I have a feeling of familiarity with that part of the world, with the tastes, smells and sounds. A few years ago I went to Egypt and I suddenly felt as if I was in a familiar place, with all those familiar impressions returning from the back of my memory. I would like to be able to speak Arabic. I feel that this would mean I could talk to more people and understand more things. I also wish I spoke Italian better, beyond the rudimentary phrases. There is a Czech proverb that says that you are as many people as you speak languages. One of my aims is to be more people.

So I have spent the first part of my self-portrait talking about places, and traveling and trying to ponder the question: “where are you from?” It has taken me so long myself to realize that this question is not really the most relevant way to start looking at my life. But it is a natural place to start, even though it wasn’t planned, since I started traveling before I was even born – my mother was pregnant when my parents moved from London to Zambia, where I was born.

I suppose identification with place is just one of the many ways of pigeonholing a person and then forming stereotyped views. When one reflects on this, it seems absurd. When you hear that someone is a French person, one assumes certain attributes. But there are tens of millions of French people, how could they all possibly be the same? There are, of course, other ways of stereotyping people. I have often felt stereotyped according to my field of study, the clothes I wear and the job I have done, as well as the job I do now. I studied mathematics, and yet have an interest in the humanities, I worked for an investment bank for some years and yet have spent much of my spare time working voluntarily for a refugee NGO (and I live with a human rights lawyer), I dress in a way that could be described as fairly conventional (often in a suit) yet I support Greenpeace.  Anyone who tried to judge my social attitudes according to a cursory look at my CV and at me (and this is something that people often do) would come up with a whole set of misunderstandings. Most of the jobs I have done have been a matter of chance, a result of chance encounters or opportunities that simply floated my way. For instance my work with the refugee organization was the result of meeting an old acquaintance in the street just at a time when help was needed – I wonder how my life would have worked out if I had been in that place a few minutes later. The only thing I did that was really by design and plan was my job at the investment bank – and I made a list of banks and sent out letters and a CV and set up interviews. That was in 1996. I had decided I wanted to work for an investment bank and in Prague. The reason was to learn more about how the commercial world functioned and learn some skills which might be useful elsewhere. Most people assume that if I worked in an investment bank, I must be obsessed with money, but this was never really the case. Maybe they don’t think that any more. As one friend once said to me: “It was an interesting place from which to observe the world.” I met people from all sorts of nationalities and all sorts of backgrounds, and went to many interesting places (not always on brief business trips) and learnt something about how human beings function. I was at one point set to spend a couple of months in Armenia, which I was looking forward to, but at the last moment a gunman walked into the parliament building and assassinated the Prime Minister and several cabinet ministers and in the ensuing upheaval the project was cancelled. Now I am doing a job which I really enjoy, which is teaching at a university, and I like my colleagues and students. We have students from numerous different countries and knowing them as well as watching how they interact is a rewarding experience. I teach business, but I don’t really have any interest in instilling ideology into my students, but to help to teach them to think about what the world around them is all about, knowing that many of them will end up in the private sector. In the communist days managers, once they reached a certain level, went off to a special school where they learnt about Marxism Leninism and how to view the world in the ‘correct’ way. I fear that many business schools do the same sort of thing. I am genuinely interested in economics, especially at a time when the subject seems to be changing, and more emphasis is being placed on people, rather than rational profit-maximizing models of what economists think people ought to be like. I have a particularly high regard for Amartya Sen. Maybe one day there will be a ‘Muse Economics’ that measures a people’s well-being by looking at the meaning in the lives of individuals, and not the production statistics that are reflected in GDP data.

Many of my current interests and opinions were formed during my childhood, and I think that books had a great influence on me. They still do, but I have to wonder what sort of person I would be if I hadn’t chanced upon what I did at that time, and also I wonder about what opportunities I might have missed. As a child I developed a strong interest in nature, or, more correctly, natural history. Numerous books in my local library supplied me with information that I could use to teach myself all sorts of new facts and ideas. The local library was more a place for my own exploration that the school library, as here I was completely free and could read what I liked and study as I liked. There was nobody there to tell me what I should read and how much and when I should read, or what was in the syllabus, or what my abilities were or weren’t. Here I also picked up a book on the history of mathematics, with descriptions of the lives of great mathematicians and how they made their discoveries, and the overall context of their work. This awoke my interest in the subject, and I still have the book, since one fine day it appeared on sale. This interest has lain dormant during the years since I graduated, but I have once more started to study it seriously, as I am now teaching statistics and in the attempt to find different ways of explaining things, I have discovered a world which I once left behind. I feel now that I understand things that seemed incomprehensible before. I wonder how I could apply this knowledge to my interest in the humanities and humanitarianism, but I also have the pleasure of relearning a way of thinking, without the bother of anyone telling me how I should use it to make money. I feel that the greatest impact my study of mathematics has had on me is in developing a certain way of thinking. I wonder how this interest will evolve over time.

Another strong influence was a children’s magazine called “Look & Learn”. I have no idea if anything like it still exists. It was a series of articles in Look & Learn that first aroused my interest in environmental issues. When I was about ten years old I became an armchair environmental campaigner, telling everyone I was in contact with about the need to protect our environment and about such hazards as the greenhouse effect and global warming. Perhaps because of my age, perhaps because it was still very much a marginal issue, I was never taken very seriously. And this was an interest which was not greatly encouraged by anyone, since it was really never going to be any use – I mean it wouldn’t help me pass exams. But I was delighted to see pedestrian zones introduced in Reading, my home town, in the early 1990s – this was one of the ‘crazy’ ideas I talked about as a child in the late 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. We should take children more seriously than we do. I would like to rekindle this interest too. Another interest that I first encountered in Look & Learn was one that has not been put in cold storage, perhaps because it is too connected with my life, and that is an interest in the emancipation of women. I read about the suffragettes and their campaign for votes and have ever since been convinced of the need to establish equality of women both since it would be a fairer way of running our affairs, and also because I believe that we need to remold the world, to make it more female world. I believe this would be a better world, and we desperately need this. I recently initiated the establishment of a new organization in the Czech Republic, to help women get more involved in public life.

And this leads me to think about my own relationship with women, which has evolved in interesting ways over the years. I feel lucky in being able to form friendships with women; I am afraid that many men see women only as partners in romance, or worse, as sex objects. This is sad, since they are missing out on a lot of very high quality friendship. A historian once said that women are central to civilization and I believe it – where there are no women there is no civilization. Many of my best friends are women and I enjoy sharing ideas and thoughts and learning more about their lives and how they feel about things and also just passing time. The Womens’ Officer of my college once conferred upon me the title of ‘honorary woman’. This is a title which I still hold in my imagination. I am not sure if my attitude to women has changed that much, since girls tended to be my best friends even when I was a young child. I could say that I have a less idealized view of women, but then it would be more accurate to say that I have a less idealized view of people in general.

My view of love, and the way I love women, has changed over the years. The story of my loves is more a story of missed opportunities than of actual romances. At least the missed opportunities have been more exciting and interesting than the romances. I have in the past sometimes agonized about these liaisons that never materialized, but have since learnt to respect the past as the past, something that happened and is over, for better or for worse. Experiences are as valuable for not coming to full fruition. This is not a matter of loves lost, so much as ships passing by each other in the night. And as I am content with the present, I’m can’t blame the past for much.

My feelings about love have often led to feelings of loneliness, something which, as an only child, I am especially prone to. Perhaps this is the greatest illusion of my life – the illusion of loneliness, often when it was not there. I have mostly thought of myself as a lonely child, a lonely adolescent and a lonely adult. But when I think back at my childhood and youth, these feelings make little sense. I was always surrounded by kind parents and many friends. It seems that the memories of sad moments have crowded out all the other memories – the memories, as a child, of playing alone on the beach, separated momentarily from my playmates, the memories of a moment during a hot sultry day at school just after the end of term, hearing a romantic song in a courtyard after all my schoolmates had already left. Earlier in my life I feel that I was rebelling against other people’s attempts to foist an identity onto me, which I was not ready to accept or that were not relevant to me. I was either one nationality or another, one religion or another, a scientist or an artist, a businessman or an entrepreneur, this or that, and I have always resisted such easy definitions of identity, especially coming from others. I am not even completely content with a male identity, being, as I am, an ‘honorary woman’. But now I am rebelling against my own perceptions of myself, myths I have created for myself.

But on the whole I was always with friends and good companions have always been a blessing. The loneliest moment of my life occurred during the time I was getting divorced. I had been with the same woman for seven years (married for two), so she was very much part of my life. The relationship was always tempestuous, though there were also times of passion and devotion, and in the end I felt I had to move out. Then one day I found myself in my new flat, just returned home after a day’s work, all alone. Nobody to talk to, just me on my own. And to make things worse I had a terrible pain in my knee and could hardly walk.

I have come to learn to cope with loneliness by taking advantage of the benefits which it brings. Not much more than a year after this business with my knee I was walking around Rome, feeling sad that I was on my own. And the thought suddenly came to me: “You are alone now; you won’t always be alone, so enjoy it while it lasts!” And that thought has comforted me in lonely moments ever since.  Besides, I learnt early on that sadness is also one of life’s great emotions, and I wonder if it is possible to experience joy without knowing sadness. Perhaps the real dark ages of my life were my school days. I spent nine years in boys’ schools and, although I had friends and was never really depressed, I spent the whole time looking forward to something better. The regimes were strict and it was all learning, memorizing and exams. During those years I hardly ever traveled and my only friends were in the same little world – but they are friends who are still dear to me. But I am proud that I spent four years in a school where rugby was compulsory and never got to play it once!

My current relationship is the one that has taught me the most about love. As I mentioned earlier, I met Petra in Budapest over two years ago, and we seem to be similar in so many different ways, from our overall outlook on the world to the way we tend to walk about the flat when we brush our teeth. All in all, we are compatible in our eccentricities. We talk almost all evenings, and it is usually about anything we chose, politics, our work, people we know, their feelings, our feelings. Petra at times helps me in my work; I will describe a problem and she will suggest an approach that I end up using, although we are from very different fields of work. And I’d like to think that I help her. Talking helps us to use our different perspectives to help each other. Sometimes in the morning she asks me what I dreamt about at night and I answer that I either can’t remember or that I didn’t dream. She replies that she knows I dreamt because she was watching me dream – she was watching my eyes move under my eyelids. Having somebody around who likes to watch me dream is my current ideal about love. Someone who likes to listen to my stories, whose stories I like to listen to, and whose smile I look forward to. To me to love is more important than to be loved. Before we met Petra was very ill – fortunately she pulled through and has been able to put her illness behind her. But this has left me more appreciative of the blessing of good health and perhaps more fearful of illness. Perhaps getting older and no longer seeing oneself as someone very young has also had some influence on thinking more about illness and mortality. Once at a funeral service the priest said that we should try to live in such a way that we do not fear death. This is something I think about when I ponder how my life should evolve.

Another way in which my life has changed in the past two or three years is the way in which leadership has become a more central part of what I do. I suppose being a teacher is a leadership role in a way, or at least that is how I see it. I don’t see myself as someone whose job is to stuff the heads of young people with information, but more as someone whose role is to provoke thought. I have led things earlier on, even as a student, but never really in a big way. Once while I was an undergraduate I led a campaign in my JCR to promote equal rights for lesbians and gay men, and this succeeded at a time when it was still considered to be a more controversial issue than it is these days. Then, people told me that I had been very courageous to take such a step, and this would make me proud, except that I never really saw this as something particularly brave. Perhaps the most challenging leadership role I have taken on is the chairmanship of the board of a refugee NGO in Prague, at a time when it was facing difficulties; this work has helped me to define my idea of leadership and power. I see my role as someone in the background not barking orders, but slowly and surely helping things to happen. The most effective things I have done consist of helping people to meet and make contact and work out some common plan. In order to help someone learn something new, or a new way of thinking it has proved to be more effective to try and identify the right person for them to talk to and exchange ideas. Perhaps the role of leadership is ‘matchmaking in ideas’. I have learnt in my leadership role as well as in life in general, that things often take time to happen, sometimes longer than one expects. Most of the things that have happened to me that were worth waiting for, really did involve waiting. I used to be interested in politics much more, though the public sphere is still a major interest, but I feel as if it is more the little things that change the world rather than the more visible things. Invisibility is often a positive asset for a leader, though it does nothing for the ego. I would like to continue to explore ways of leading, but I am not yet sure how (or where).

On the whole I feel happier and more content with my life than I have done in the past few years. I like my work and am grateful that I am involved in other activities in the non-profit sector (these are my research interests, really). I am also fortunate enough to have found the kind of romance that suits me the best, and am relieved that my relationship with my parents is now better than it has ever been. I also consider myself fortunate that fate has given me friends amongst different groups of people and in different worlds, so to speak. And that I have been able to have conversations which have changed my life and the way I look at life. I feel I am approaching another crossroads in life, where new choices of career and life are not so far away, but I feel more confident about approaching this time. Recently I met up with some friends from Trinidad whom I first met on one of my trips to the United States. Later, one of them wrote to me in an e-mail: “You could easily also be a Trini – you have that happy islander outlook”.

The novelist John Fowles once said: “There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not anymore what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.” I wonder if I will ever reach this point of fulcrum, but I have the suspicion that life is really all about learning, all the time. And there has to be interaction; without interaction learning is not possible and without interaction it is also pointless.

December 2004